Upfront: The Power of the Haka

Ports of Auckland chief executive Geoff Vazey’s call for staff haka to send Team New Zealand off each race day didn’t do much for our America’s Cup performance, but it had lasting impact on the port’s management team.

After tentative start at the first practice, the haka support campaign evolved into the company’s best ever team-building exercise.

Vazey didn’t have management theory in mind when he initiated the display of patriotism and support for Team New Zealand. He is, he says, just keen sportsman who’s sailed Flying Ants, Cherubs, R-class, 18 footers and One Ton Cup yachts competitively and wanted to keep the cup in the Basin.

The company provided Team New Zealand with $1.5 million specialist rigid inflatable craft to tow the black boats. And Axis Intermodal, the container-handling division, raised huge (8 metre by 4 metre) black Loyal flag at the end of Axis Fergusson container terminal. Smaller Loyal flags bedecked cranes, straddle carriers, tugs and the pilot boat. But Vazey wanted to do more. “I asked myself: ‘What is special about New Zealand, and what feels good as sportsman?'”

His answer – haka.

There were logistical problems. The port’s 500 staff are never all at work at the same time. And then there was the protocol. Who would train and lead the group? Vazey contacted Tiwana Tibble, chief executive of the Orakei-based Ngati Whatua, the port’s neighbours. Lead trainer Paul Davis was assigned, and he and other kapa haka experts got behind the haka from day one.

Group manager human resources Jon Baxter scheduled daily practices timed to coincide with shift changeovers and alternated at the two container terminals to allow maximum participation. Corporate communications manager Karen Bradshaw rallied the troops and organised black “We Are Loyal” t-shirts for staff. Operational managers talked about the haka campaign at team meetings.

Initially it was difficult to gauge up-take. Vazey reckons that at the first practice in the staff canteen, about third of those present stood up. But by the end of each practice, almost without exception, everybody was not only standing up but they were doing the haka. There were smiles on the faces, handshakes, hongis and high-fives. “When I saw that at the first couple of practices, I thought we were onto something.”

There was nervousness threshold for some non-Maori staff. But it wasn’t long before feeling of embarrassment at “dancing in public” gave way to “feeling good” and wanting to be part of it.

Experienced Maori staff including stevedore Valance Repia (Atihau-nui-a-Paparangi) took up the leadership and management of the process and the protocol involved in delivering the haka.

The first race day produced an explosive and exhilarating haka. The black boats came in close to take in the performance. The high-volume haka was blasted across the water by large sound system and was rewarded with waves from Team New Zealand and chorus of horns from the support and recreational flotilla. From there the haka campaign became high-profile feature of each race-day morning.

People turned up on their days off to take part.

Bonds were formed among employees in diverse jobs, many of whom had never, or rarely, met on the job before.

Scott Paterson, general manager logistics, called it “the best team-building exercise I’ve ever attended. Better than scaling trees or crossing rivers.”

“There are some great lessons to be learned from the haka campaign,” says Vazey. “All those who took part got tremendous pleasure out of it – the participation, the camaraderie, doing something to help Team New Zealand and the country. It made lot of people feel good, and when people feel good the company is in far healthier state.”

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